What Happens When a Machine Boots a Passenger

While millions of people viewed this disturbing scene of a passenger being forcibly removed from a United Airlines flight, few realized that a machine was at the bottom of this.

According to NBC News, “The airline said it had asked people to give up their seats for four crew members who needed to fly. When not enough people volunteered, despite being offered compensation, the airline used an algorithm to select people who then had to give up their space.”

How was that algorithm programmed?

Bloomberg news reports that computers make decisions “based on a fare class, an itinerary, status in its frequent flyer program, ‘and the time in which the passenger presents him/herself for check-in without advanced seat assignment.’”

The New York Times focused on how machines have not improved airline travel, stating:

Everything about United Flight 3411 — overselling, underpaying for seats when they are oversold, a cultish refusal to offer immediate contrition, an overall attitude that brutish capitalism is the best that nonelite customers can expect from this fallen world — is baked into the airline industry’s business model. And that business model has been accelerated by tech.

The computer also didn’t take into account that the selected passenger was of Asian heritage, causing crisis management for United in its efforts to make inroads in China. The BBC reported that with a quote from one user alleging the man’s treatment was “racial profiling.”

That may not be the case. What is certain, however, is algorithms making decisions not only to remove passengers but to overbook flights.

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